How Safe Are Mental Health Apps?
Mental health awareness is reaching an all-time high. Conditions such as anxiety, depression, and substance addiction are finally starting to be taken seriously, and people are finally seeking necessary help. Almost 30% of Americans have seen a therapist during the pandemic, for example. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford a private therapist to help them.
As a result, there’s an increase in self-help apps that seemingly offer affordable mental health care. Although many of these apps are based on genuine psychological approaches and techniques, there’s one thing that most of them are lacking – cybersecurity.
Mental health apps aren’t obliged to follow many of the rules that the health sector typically complies with. For instance, they might not reassure that patients’ data will be safe and remain confidential from anyone.
Mental health apps as an alternative to therapy
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a significant rise in telemedicine (or remote healthcare). Patients can easily schedule virtual consultations with their healthcare providers. They can receive digital prescriptions or seek help over the phone. Most commonly, they can use online resources to deal with mental health issues.
Young adults are increasingly using social media as an alternative to therapy, whether by watching videos from therapists or using designated social media groups. Thus, health experts ask one important question: can people rely on an app to soothe their mental hurdles?
As these apps become smarter thanks to advances in AI and natural language processing, we can expect to see an increase in mental health app users. While they’re not always the best alternative to face-to-face therapy, they’re the most affordable option, making them an increasingly more popular choice.
Data collected through mental health apps
Some mental health apps might have no relation to medical facilities. Thus, they are businesses looking to make a profit. One way of doing this is to offer subscriptions or make virtual consultations paid. In more extreme situations, apps might sell their clients’ data to third parties. As reported by The Washington Post, a study exposed smoking and depression apps selling data to Google and Facebook.
Different mental health apps collect different types of data on their users, depending on their approach. Apps that connect their users with licensed therapists usually have to follow local and federal rules regarding doctor-patient confidentiality. Therefore, they only collect data like your name, email address, IP, and the like, while your medical data remains secure.
However, not all apps are so careful with data collection. Apps that use therapy AI chatbots, offer therapy exercises, or allow you to track your symptoms using an in-app diary aren’t bound by local or federal laws such as HIPAA. They can collect and store all information that you willingly share with them, exposing you to serious privacy risks.
It’s critical to understand that most mental health apps behave like any other app (unless otherwise specified). They indiscriminately collect your data, share it with third parties, and use it for marketing purposes. So, if you want to stay on the safe side and take your cybersecurity levels up a notch as you’re using these apps, you’ll need to follow a few steps.
How to Level up Security on Mental Health Apps
Mental health apps are no different than your typical photo-editing app, calorie counter, or mobile game from Apple App Store or Google Play Store. So, you’ll want to follow the same security steps when downloading them.
Only use reliable apps
Never download apps from suspicious sources or lesser-known developers. Instead, use your device’s original app store and thoroughly read user reviews to see how reliable the app is. It’s also a good idea to visit a few review sites and see what they say about the mental health app in question.
Only once you’re completely sure that an app is reliable should you download it.
Privacy policies are usually lengthy documents that use a lot of technical jargon. You should still go over them, however.
They’ll give you better insight into how your private data is collected, stored, and shared. The best mental health apps will usually make it clear that they follow HIPAA and other relevant regulations, meaning they’ll keep your health records private.
Always use a VPN
To level up your app security, you should always keep your VPN active. An app like Atlas VPN will keep your connection private, whether you’re using your home’s secure Wi-Fi or your local Starbucks network.
It will mask your IP address, never exposing your actual location. Additionally, it will protect your connection from any prying eyes and keep you more anonymous online. It’s a necessary tool for ensuring the safety of your mobile health app. Thus, a VPN can preserve the integrity of your communications. If you use a mental health app for virtual consultations, you must be certain that no data can leak due to an unsecured connection.
Go over app permissions
Finally, you should always go over app permissions before you start using it. Many apps will automatically request permissions that aren’t necessary for them to function.
For example, access to your camera and microphone is acceptable if you’re using an app that connects you with licensed therapists through video. However, it’s not needed if you’re using guided meditation apps.
So, turn off all permissions that aren’t relevant to the app if you want to increase the safety of your private data.
When carefully chosen, mental health apps can be an excellent alternative to face-to-face counseling. Still, it’s essential to ensure their utmost safety by following cybersecurity measures that’ll ensure your privacy. If not, users’ confidential information might end up exposed online. By nature, mental health apps themselves are also prone to glitches. For instance, an app could accidentally expose your consultation to other users.
If you feel hesitant to try them, stick to face-to-face appointments. However, the pandemic has proved that you can never know when you won’t be able to live as you are used to. Thus, consider mental health apps an option, and use them with the appropriate protection.